Bible Belt-Tightening An expanding flock of Christian weight-loss programs helps members shed pounds and hopelessness by gaining a new appreciation of prayer.

May 25, 1998|By Joanne P. Cavanaugh | Joanne P. Cavanaugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The good man eats to live, while the evil man lives to eat." Proverbs 13: 25

Chris Griffin had never felt her stomach growl. As a child, she cleaned her dinner plate just as her father ordered. As a young mother of three living in rural Maryland, she downed pizza slices and Hershey's chocolate to stave off cabin fever. And, as an adoptive mother of a severely handicapped son, she drowned her suffering in hot fudge sundaes.

The 5-foot-7 Reistertown woman got up to 185 pounds, developed diabetes and had to go on medication. Then last year, she found a solution to her lifelong weight struggle. She lost nearly 40 pounds, and she still eats pizza, chocolate and ice cream.

The difference: She prays away the hunger, the addiction, the worry.

She joined a new Bible-based weight-loss program through her church.

"Whether our obsession is eating, smoking or drinking, it's like filling a God-sized hole in your life with something other than God," says Griffin, 46. "I needed to shift my focus away from food and give it over to the Lord."

A secretary at Trinity Assembly of God in Lutherville, Griffin tells her story at a table in Trinity's Fellowship Hall. Sugar-cookie crumbs from the previous night's church dinner are ground into the blue-gray carpet under her feet. The Wednesday night meal was a heaping plate of lasagna, salad and pastries.

"There are a lot of things that are considered too worldly, but for Christians, food is not one," she says. "It's what Christians do when they get together. Other people drink, we eat. And a few of us are quite big."

So many, in fact, that a Purdue University study published in March found that religious people are more likely to be overweight than nonreligious people. Purdue sociology professor Kenneth Ferraro said he was surprised by his findings -- he had figured that churchgoers were more focused on healthful living.

"They've cut back on a lot of other things -- they are less likely to smoke, less likely to consume drugs and alcohol," says Ferraro. "But they haven't woken up to the issue of excessive body weight."

Gwen Shamblin, founder of the weight program Griffin joined, puts it this way: "It makes sense. We know it's wrong to go to bed with the man next door, it's wrong getting plastered at the bar down the street, but eating? That can't be wrong."

Yet American churches are virtually silent on the issue. And that's "despite a biblical dictate for moderation in all things," Ferraro says. "In the Book of Proverbs, gluttony is listed with drunkenness as a sign of moral weakness, but few religious groups have any proscriptions against overeating."

That may still be true in many pulpits, but the all-American craze to lose weight is coming to the sanctuary. Christian diet workshops -- a combination of inspirational audio and video tapes, books, prayer meetings and Bible studies -- are multiplying like Jesus-blessed loaves and fishes. Two highly publicized programs, and a plethora of smaller ones, are spreading by word of mouth among church members in the Baltimore area and across the country.

Shamblin's program, The Weigh Down Workshop, is one of the fastest-spreading. It has grown from a handful of 12-week seminars in 1992 to 19,400 workshops in 73 countries, Weigh Down representatives say. They have been adding 250 new classes a week since January. Shamblin's book, "The Weigh Down Diet" (1997, $21, Doubleday), is a national best seller on the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) list.

"People are really finding deliverance in this program," says spokeswoman Lyn Walker, at Weigh Down headquarters in Franklin, Tenn. She says she has lost 85 pounds and is now in the 140s.

Another program, First Place, founded in Houston in 1980, has spread to 12,000 churches. Tapping biblical inspiration and the power of prayer, it has helped 500,000 people lose weight, its representatives say. Spokeswoman Sheila Robbins says she has lost 150 pounds, and now weighs about 170. "God has taken presence over that area of our lives."

Seeking change

For more and more Christians, spiritual factors are critical in the search for physical health. There's a vegetarian-based Hallelujah Diet, the Prayer Walking health regimen and Step Forward, a 12-step program for Christians who overeat. There are also dozens of books with titles like "Health Begins in Him" by nutritionist Terry Dorian; "Lay Aside the Weight" by preacher T.D. Jake; or "Faithfully Fit: A 40-Day Devotional Plan to End the Yo-Yo Lifestyle of Chronic Dieting" by self-described Christian wives and mothers Claire Cloninger and Laura Barr.

Chris Griffin and her husband, Stan, know all about the lose-weight-gain-weight tug of war. They are both from families of big people. The scales in relatives' bathrooms may tip 300 pounds. For more than 20 years, Stan, 51, has been on one diet or another. At 5-foot-9, he was 225 pounds and on blood-pressure medication.

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